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3 Creative Ways to Deal with Exposed Tree Roots

3 Creative Ways to Deal with Exposed Tree Roots

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3 Creative Ways to Deal with Exposed Tree Roots

Exposed tree roots are never good news. They increase the risk of tripping accidents, make it harder to mow the lawn, and ruin the overall aesthetics of your garden.

You almost feel like you want to just rip them off the ground and be done with it! Don’t do that, though. It would actually do more harm than good, but I’ll cover that in a minute.

I understand how frustrating that situation can be, which is why I’m coming to you with not one but three creative ways to deal with exposed tree roots. 

Let’s get right to it! 

Why Do Tree Roots Become Exposed?

Diagram Of Tree With Roots Underground

Before I delve into potential fixes, you need to understand why your tree roots rise above ground level in the first place.

There isn’t a definitive answer here, as several variables factor into the equation. I can, however, explore the most common causes.

Lack of Oxygen

Exposed tree roots are like humans rising to the surface after a long ocean dive: They need oxygen. Yes, growing a tree isn’t just about watering or using fertilizers.

They’re living beings, after all. They need to breathe. If your soil is too moist, it would prevent oxygen from reaching the roots, causing them to rise to the surface to get a breather.

Soil Erosion

Soil erosion is a natural process that involves heavy wind/rain washing away the soil and causing it to wear out. It’s a natural process that you can’t avoid to an extent. However, it becomes too troublesome when too much soil is removed/worn out.

Of course, some people exacerbate the erosion process through poor land management. They can unknowingly leave the soil exposed to natural elements after tilling it before planting crops. So, always stay watchful of how your actions are affecting the soil.

Garden Tiller

Lack of Space

Have you ever booked a hotel room with a bed that was too small for you? Being trapped within the confines of a tiny bed would make your legs numb. So you’d have to stretch them over the bed to sleep comfortably.

That’s kind of the case with exposed roots. If you plant your tree in a limited space, the roots won’t be able to stretch naturally, so they resort to stretching over the ground. 

How to Deal with Exposed Tree Roots

Now that you understand why your roots are sticking out of the ground, let’s see how you can fix that problem.

1 – Build a Mulch Bed Under the Tree’s Canopy

Mulch Around Tree Trunk With Exposed Roots

Mulching is the most effective way to cover exposed tree roots. Not only is it easy to apply, but it also helps maintain the aesthetics of your lawn.

Since mulch doesn’t get mowed, you won’t have to worry about potentially damaging the buried roots. You don’t even have to apply that much. 2-3 inches of organic mulch should do the trick. It’s a win-win situation!

It’s worth noting that mulch absorbs a lot of water, which can promote root rot when applied against the trunk of the tree. So, I recommend leaving a 12-inch gap between the trunk and the mulch to prevent excess moisture from building up against the bark.

Mulch bed materials include:

  • Wood chips
  • Composted leaves (the larger, the better)
  • Bark nuggets
  • Rocks/pebbles
  • Pine needles (sometimes referred to as Pine Straw)

Let’s see which materials might work best for you.

Pine Needles

Overall, I think pine needles are the most effective option on this list, as they combine affordability and functionality. Not only do they break down slowly, but they’re also highly porous.

So, adding a few inches is enough to allow plenty of water to filter through to the roots.

Their biggest downside is that they’re lightweight. Given that many exposed tree roots usually appear on sloping grounds, they won’t be sturdy enough to stay in place. Additionally, they may not be able to handle the heavy wind/rain associated with soil erosion.


If you need to lay a mulch bed in a windy area, rocks and pebbles would be more effective options. They’re heavier than pine needles, so you don’t have to worry about them being blown away. They’ll also allow enough water and air to pass through.

Rocks and pebbles are inorganic, so they won’t decompose into the soil. That means you won’t have to top-up your mulch every year. Ultimately, these are your go-to options if you want a once-and-done mulch bed. 

2 – Overplant the Area with Ground Covering Plants

Daffodils Growing Around The Base Of A Tree

Growing ground-covering plants near the exposed roots ensures no one would step over that area. I know you’re afraid that your garden might grow out of control.

Don’t worry. Limit your selection to small/dwarf plants, and you’ll be fine.

I understand it’s a tricky solution, as you need to consider the plants’ and the trees’ environmental needs. That’s why I’m here, though.

I’ll show you how to grow ground-covering plants without damaging your trees. 

Keep Them Distant

That’s the most crucial step in the process. When planting ground-covering plants, be careful not to get too close to the feeder roots of your trees. These are the roots that absorb nutrients and pass them down to the ones deep below the ground.

You don’t want the plants and the roots to compete over nutrients because your plants will lose. Feeder roots absorb large amounts of water, making it difficult for new, smaller plants to establish a healthy root system.

So, when you’re digging a hole to grow your plant, use a trowel to inspect the surface for feeder roots. If you spot them, move the hole 2-3 inches away. You also want to use drought-tolerant plants or any type that will grow efficiently with little sunlight or in the shade.

Do you remember the 12-inch mulching gap? That applies to growing ground-cover plants, too. If you choose to grow ones that absorb too much moisture (bad idea), keep them at least twelve inches away from the tree trunk.

Grow Your Plants Properly 

There’s no point in growing ground-covering plants if you won’t do it properly. Yes, that goes without saying, but I still want to provide a few tips.

You might need to water the new plants a little extra in the first few days, as they’ll compete with more established roots for nutrients. Yes, if you plant them far enough, you shouldn’t face any trouble.

This is just a precautionary measure. Of course, you must stay watchful for any signs of overwatering.

Even if you decide to go with the ground-covering plant solution, I still recommend applying three inches of organic mulch. It enriches the soil, which helps these plants establish a more extensive rooting system.

Ground-covering plants usually grow quickly, so you only need to fertilize them 2-3 times a year. You don’t have to do it right away. Waiting 4-6 weeks after planting should be enough. 

3 – Pruning Exposed Tree Roots

Pruning Loppers

Look, pruning exposed tree roots is never a good idea. Most people don’t know these roots anchor trees to the ground, preventing them from tumbling. One wrong move, and you could cut the tree’s source of nutrition/oxygen and cause it to fall over.

However, if the roots are damaging a building’s structural integrity or causing a driveway to buckle, then you have no other choice.

That said, pruning exposed trees isn’t as simple as grabbing a saw and cutting any root above ground level. You need to know what you’re going to cut and how you’re going to cut it.

As a rule of thumb, target roots that are less than two inches wide. Keep the thicker ones to provide stability. You also want to avoid the roots that are close to the trunk.

These are crucial for the tree’s health. The farthest the root, the safest the cut. I recommend not cutting more than 20% of the exposed roots.

That way, you’d be causing the least amount of damage to your tree. You can wait a couple of years for your tree to heal before cutting more. It’s a sensitive, complicated process, so I recommend calling a professional if that’s a viable option.

How to Avoid Exposed Tree Roots

Now that you know how to deal with exposed tree roots, let’s address a very important question: How can you avoid exposed tree roots in the first place?

Here’s how you can do it:

1. Choose an Optimal Location

Start by planting your tree in an optimal spot. That’s a location that caters to the tree’s needs. For instance, oak trees usually develop an extensive root system.

So, plant them somewhere with enough space to host these roots. You also want to stay away from nearby buildings and sidewalks. 

As I’ve already established, exposed roots become a real threat when they threaten the structural foundation of buildings or cause tripping hazards.

So, I recommend planting your tree at least 6 feet (2 meters) from nearby sidewalks and 15 feet (5 meters) from the surrounding buildings.

2. Provide the Ideal Environment

Roots coming out to the surface to breathe are a sign that you’re not providing the ideal environment for your tree. 

You have to use the right type of soil and learn how to water it properly. Otherwise, the roots will just come out gasping for air again.

3. Plant Slow-Growing Trees

All trees aren’t born equal. Some grow quickly; some don’t. It’s these fast growers that are usually exhibiting the exposed root issue.

So, you can save time and energy by choosing slow-growing species, as they’re less likely to grow exposed roots. These include linden, sugar maple, and red buckeye.

4. Erosion Prevention

As I’ve already established, soil erosion is one of the primary causes of exposed roots, so you want to learn how to combat it. 

Luckily, a simple erosion/vegetative barrier is enough to keep your soil in order. If that doesn’t work, you can always cover the soil with coconut fiber or jute netting.

Final Thoughts

Now you know how to fix exposed tree roots. Whether it’s suffocation, soil erosion, or lack of space, several causes can prompt exposed roots. The fixes are always the same, though.

Sure, pruning the exposed roots seems like the simplest solution, but it does more harm than good. So, keep it as a last resort.

If you want to avoid the hassle of dealing with exposed roots, just pick a slow-growing tree and provide the ideal environment for it.

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Tuesday 9th of August 2022

I just found your web site and find it very informative and ideas that are easy to digest. It covers a wide variety of issues a homeowner who gardens may encounter. Heading out to mulch my lilacs vs. add topsoil! Thanks for the info!